Holiday Movies

What to do when there are only 12 days of Christmas but dozens of movies on offer? Here's a guide to some worth braving the crowds for

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(3 of 5)

The film focuses on Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a composite of historical figures, who starts out wanting to be a poet and ends up being the bureaucrat at the center of some of the CIA's most notorious activities. Damon is terrific in the role--all-knowing, never overtly expressing a feeling. Indeed, so is everyone else in this intricate, understated but ultimately devastating account of how secrets, when they are left to fester, can become an illness, dangerous to those who keep them, more so to nations that base their policies on them.

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER The knives are out at the palace, and Gong Li is staring daggers. Chinese cinema's haughtiest diva plays a 10th century Empress who is having an affair with her stepson while, she suspects, her husband (Chow Yun Fat) is slowly poisoning her. That's just for appetizers in a menu of long-lost parents, eloping lovers and the minor distraction of a civil war out in the grand courtyard.

Director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and his screenwriting collaborators seem to have swiped bits from Shakespeare's four main tragedies: the conniving wife from Macbeth, the jealous husband from Othello, the raging father and three skirmishing children from King Lear and the pileup of dead royals from Hamlet. There's swordplay and a supporting cast of warriors in the CGI thousands, but the most thrilling spectacle is the clash of ids and egos.

Fans of epics in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tradition may be confused or annoyed by the intensely lurid tone of this movie. Well, all that means is that it's different--gorgeously garish, both in the color scheme (bold tints against the chrysanthemums of the film's title) and in the splash of wild emotion.

Chow, the long-ago supercool star of Hong Kong crime movies, parades a magnificent malevolence he's not unleashed before. And Gong Li, working for the first time in 11 years with the director (and ex-lover) who made her an international star in Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, shows a passion that has never been so animated or tearful.

This is high, and high-wire, melodrama. It's less soap opera than grand opera, where matters of love and death are played at a perfect fever pitch. And grand this Golden Flower is.

BLOOD DIAMOND When a Hollywood star sports a foreign accent for one of his characters, viewers are tempted to say, Stop trying to hide; we know it's you. But Leonardo DiCaprio is such a resourceful actor, and such a magnetic movie presence, that he can persuasively slip into the character of Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler from Zimbabwe who's on the trail of a rock the size of Kilimanjaro. Blood Diamond, the fitfully engrossing drama from director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), links Danny with the diamond's discoverer, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, ever noble), whose family has been seized in the brutal 1990s Sierra Leone civil war and sent to a refugee camp.

The movie's political message--that buying a diamond ring may unwittingly finance terrorism--is buried under two plot questions: Will Danny find Solomon's diamond? And will he locate a furtive decency under all that artful scheming? Neither holds much suspense, since 1) this is an action movie and 2) DiCaprio takes lots of risks as an actor, but playing a total rotter isn't one of them.

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